Bill whitewashes earmarks, ethics

Young children with active imaginations often invent playtime scenarios in which they pretend to be somebody else, like an astronaut or a fireman. Everybody, including the adults in the household, knows it is make-believe. Most members of Congress seem to have forgotten that adults know pretending when they see it. And for months they’ve been seeing way too much pretending on the issue of earmarks and ethics reform.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, epitomized the pretenders when she declared it “historic” that the House on a 411-8 vote approved the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 — which, by the way, she negotiated with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., behind closed doors. The Senate followed suit in approving the bill Friday. There are a few positive provisions in the bill, but the bottom line is that it is stuffed with cosmetic changes that fail to address the core issues of congressional corruption spawned by earmarks.

Earmarks corrupt Congress in two fundamental ways: First, earmarks allow members to dole out tax dollars to themselves, family and staff members, campaign donors and favored special interests with no accountability. Second, members trade earmarks to gain votes for more and bigger federal spending programs. This is why Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., calls earmarks “the gateway drug to federal spending addiction.” In fact, Reid and Pelosi killed the reform bill’s original provision prohibiting earmark trading for votes, and they all but gutted the prohibition on earmarks to family and staff members. As for transparency, Reid lowered the Senate earmark disclosure suspension threshold from 67 votes to 60 and made himself arbiter of certifying compliance, instead of the Senate parliamentarian. This is like an addict condemning drugs as he heads to the backroom to shoot up again.

Reid and Pelosi are not alone in pretending to advance genuine reforms. As Roll Call predicted last month, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is now undercutting Coburn and Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and signaling the desire of many GOP establishmentarians to move on from earmarks and ethics issues. Next, McConnell will credit a “bipartisan consensus” as the key to victory for reform in the Senate, thereby enabling Democrats to claim they’ve kept their 2006 campaign promise. Then members on both sides of the aisle in Congress can go on pretending they are serious about honestleadership and open government in Washington.

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